Utah Churches Watch Fate of Baptist Leader

Black denomination to decide whether to oust the Rev. Lyons

The Salt Lake Tribune, March 13, 1999
By Bob Mims

The National Baptist Convention's upcoming meeting over the future of its embattled president likely will be acrimonious if the widely varying reactions of the denomination's Utah ministers are a gauge.

The Rev. Henry J. Lyons, leader of the nation's largest black denomination, is expected to appeal his Feb. 27 racketeering and grand theft convictions. First, however, he must weather a challenge to his presidency of the 8.5 million-member NBC when the convention's board gathers on Tuesday.

The emergency session will be held on Lyons' home turf, the Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he pastors.

Those proceedings will be closely followed by the convention's 33,000 churches worldwide, including a dozen in Utah.

The Rev. France Davis, pastor of Salt Lake City's Calvary Baptist Church, looks forward to any resolution that will bring peace to the fractured, 119-year-old NBC. Still, he expects Lyons' departure.

"It's been a devastating blow to us and our convention. It mocks us in a very negative way," he said, noting the scandal has concerned his congregation of 500 for more than year since Lyons was indicted by federal prosecutors for fraud, extortion, money laundering, conspiracy and tax evasion.

"The courts have made their decision and the convention will also make its decision about another president," Davis said.

However, the Rev. Corey J. Hodges, pastor of Murray's New Pilgrim Baptist Church, hopes Lyons will survive the vote of confidence expected Tuesday.

"I probably know Pastor Lyons better than any other minister in this area. I'm from his church," he said. "The Dr. Lyons that the media and others have portrayed is quite different from the Dr. Lyons I know . . . he is a man of integrity."

Supporters of Lyons criticize his convictions as racist, noting the all-white makeup of his jury.

Hodges is encouraging his 400 parishioners to pray for Lyons and his family rather than judge him. He also calls on fellow NBC ministers to refrain from speculation about Lyons' future.

"I don't think any particular religious leader or preacher should look at Dr. Lyons as a criminal," Hodges said. "All of us are subject to making mistakes."

The Rev. James Abrams, pastor of the New Zion Baptist Church in Ogden, stressed that Lyons already has been called to account in a higher court than that in Florida's Pinellas County.

"As far as secularism goes, no, it's not resolved. But I believe it's resolved according to God," he said. "We've had this in the past. David fell, Solomon fell and there were others who fell. God forgave them and we must forgive one another."

While saying he will support whatever decision the NBC's directors make, Abrams clearly favored redeeming Lyons as both a brother in the faith, and perhaps as the leader he credits for boosting the convention's evangelistic efforts since being elected president in 1994.

"This man, I believe in my heart, is a called man of God. God does not withdraw his calling -- it is man who draws away from his calling," the pastor said. "We've had others who have fallen and continued to deliver God's word, such as Jimmy Swaggart."

Swaggart, a fiery televangelist, was defrocked in 1988 following a tearful confession of unspecified sin to his congregation. The Assemblies of God severed its ties to Swaggart after having been supplied with photos of the preacher with a prostitute.

Davis agreed there was no question Lyons should be forgiven, but his continued leadership of the NBC was a much more difficult matter.

"We've been working through the healing process, but it will take awhile; it could be a long while," he said. "We believe in forgiveness and giving an opportunity for change."

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